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Joanna Cherry: Westminster fails to agree on anything as Brexit deadline looms

This article originally appeared in the Sunday National on 20th January 2019.

It was with a strange sense of unreality and some difficulty that I made my way through the packed No lobby where more than 400 MPs had congregated last Tuesday evening to vote. SNP MPs are used to having a few pro-Remain Tories for company when we vote on Brexit-related matters but this time we were joined by the ERG and the DUP.

A few minutes later Theresa May suffered a historic defeat when her Withdrawal Agreement was rejected by MPs by a margin of 230 votes.

It is almost unprecedented for a Government to survive a defeat on their central economic and security policy but survive she did a day later when the PM resisted a vote of no confidence in her Government.

And, despite initial indications to the contrary in the aftermath of her Commons drubbing, it became clear that the PM was not going to relax her red lines.

Ian Blackford, other party leaders and some leading MPs who took up her invitation to meet for talks left with their views on her intransigence reinforced and EU diplomats were left in disbelief as she failed to make any new demands in calls to EU leaders.

Very quickly the Brexit Select Committee, of which Peter Grant and I are members, produced a report outlining the options open to Parliament; to hold another vote on the PMs Agreement (unchanged), to leave with no deal, to call on the Government to renegotiate the deal before a further vote or to hold a second referendum.

On renegotiation the committee identified three main possibilities; seeking changes in the text of the Withdrawal Agreement regarding the backstop arrangements; seeking a Canada-style trade deal (but this still requires a withdrawal agreement and a backstop); and the Norway plus option (seeking to join the EEA through the EFTA pillar and remaining in a customs union with the EU which might get rid of the need for a backstop).

To this I would add the “nuclear” option of the UK Parliament revoking Article 50 thanks to the Scottish case, but I fear many would find that unacceptable without the mandate of a second EU referendum.

Meanwhile there is a growing sense that inevitably parliament must seek an extension of the Article 50 notice period which would otherwise expire on March 29. Such an extension would require the unanimous agreement of the EU27 whereas revocation can be done unilaterally but should not be used as some sort of hokey cokey device.

However an extension is not a permanent solution. It simply buys more time and the conventional wisdom is that the EU is unlikely to agree to an extension simply for more dithering, but only for a second vote or a General Election.

That said, when I was in Paris this weekend meeting with French and British politicians, business people and opinion formers there was a sense that perhaps the EU might be more flexible than previously thought. The problem is that there appears to be no majority at Westminster for any of the options listed above.

In such circumstances delay is of course the path of least resistance. It is said that there probably is a majority for ruling out no deal but that of itself is not enough. An alternative to no deal must be found. Put shortly these would be a different deal than the one voted down last week, revocation or, in the short term at least, delay.

Rumours of an imminent General Election have circulated but it is hard to see how it could address the issues outlined above or indeed how either the Tories or Labour could go the country on a united platform.

This week in the Commons will be all about process but, as any lawyer will tell you, getting the process right maximises the chances of getting to the right answer – something which the SNP and the independence movement should bear in mind.

Tomorrow the PM will make a statement to the House presenting her plan B.

Thereafter there will be a second meaningful vote on the plan B following upon a debate on Tuesday January 29.

The Government will table a business motion governing how that debate is to be conducted tomorrow and thereafter there is likely to be a frenzy of tabling of amendments to the Government business motion with a view to parliament “taking back control” of the process.

Some Tory and Labour MPs plan to facilitate this by presenting bills as well as tabling amendments to the business motion. Clearly the Speaker has some sympathy with this course of action hence the opprobrium, smears and threats directed his way from the Government benches.

Between the tabling of plan B and the debate and vote there are likely be a number of Brexit-related emergency debates, urgent questions from MPs and unexpected procedural votes. MPs will need to be on their toes.

So where are the SNP in all of this? When the FM came to Westminster last week she was clear that what the PM must do now is stop the ticking clock by extending Article 50, bring forward legislation for a second EU referendum and take no deal off the table. She also indicated that she will be updating her plans for a second independence referendum in a “matter of weeks”.

Within hours of her saying this an exclusive poll for the Herald newspaper revealed a majority of 56% in favour of a second independence referendum if Brexit goes ahead.

I didn’t find this surprising as it fits with what many members of public and constituents are saying to me given their concerns at the way the Brexit process has unfolded and the lack of leadership at Westminster.

The Tories, particularly the Scottish ones would do well to realise that the boorish and insulting behaviour towards SNP MPs does not go unnoticed.

Together with the sidelining of Scotland’s Parliament and ignoring of our democratic mandate, it is helping build the cause for independence.

The majority of people in Scotland now know that the 2014 indyref was won on the back of lies. This Brexit debacle has exposed the two biggest lies – that Scotland is an equal partner in the UK and that voting to stay in the UK would guarantee Scots’ EU citizenship.

As debate was joined on how best to facilitate a second vote on independence, Gordon Brown made another one of his famous “interventions”, with a speech in Edinburgh calling for an Article 50 extension and a series of “public hearings” across the country to establish what the public now wants from Brexit. It also emerged that he supports a second referendum on Brexit but not, of course, on independence.

Like Willie Rennie, Gordon Brown can see the justification of changed circumstances for a second EU referendum but not a second indyref. This just won’t wash with the people of Scotland.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the lessons to be learned from Ireland. The citizen assembly model being proposed by Gordon Brown was the precursor to last year’s Irish abortion referendum, and the ground work it did is widely believed to have been crucial to the decisive victory for modernisation. This model is not too far from the approach adopted by the SNP at the National Assemblies held last summer/Autumn which were hailed by those who went along as the best exercise in participative policy and strategy shaping the SNP has held in a long time. It seems to me that in moving the debate forward on both the why and the how of independence, a Citizens National Assembly for Scotland would be a good idea. After all, as I said above, getting the process right maximises the chances of getting to the right answer.

Joanna Cherry QC MP

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